Opinion Columns & Blogs

Editorial: Drought should revive water conservation

People finally are uttering the D-word. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Jim Costa want Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state drought emergency. The first 10 months of 2013 were the driest on record in California, going back to 1895, according to the National Climatic Data Center.

That record follows two years of dry conditions, so several reservoirs are now at less than 40 percent of capacity, including Shasta and Oroville at 37 percent, and Folsom at 21 percent.

These levels are reminiscent of the 1976-77 drought, during Jerry Brown’s first term as governor.

Today, 83 percent of the state is in severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Even worse, the Central Valley is in extreme drought.

Brown on Wednesday named a Drought Management Team to help determine whether a drought declaration is warranted. That’s a start. But Brown also needs to get ahead of this quickly to avoid a water emergency. Hoping for winter storms is not a strategy.

The state is facing severe hardship already. Two examples suffice.

The fire season usually ends with our wet winters, but not this year. An 800-acre wildfire burned along the Big Sur coast last week. The area, which averaged nearly 45 inches of rain a year between 1981 and 2010, has gotten only 7 inches this year.

In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared the state a drought disaster area. In 2013, State Water Project allocations were at 35 percent of requested deliveries. The initial allocation for 2014 is 5 percent, the lowest on record.

Farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley have increased groundwater pumping, which causes other problems. We have record low groundwater levels, which is causing the land to sink. That, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, is reducing the capacity of the Delta-Mendota Canal, the California Aqueduct and other canals that deliver water.

This latest drought should remind us that we have a long-term water imbalance, as Brown cogently said in ending the last drought emergency in 2011: “Drought or no drought, demand for water in California always exceeds supply.”

After the 1976-77 drought, a report on lessons learned concluded that “water is a limited resource, and water conservation and water recycling are practical and must become a way of life.”

It seems we have to learn that lesson again. That would be a fine resolution for the new year, and for every year.